Full disclosure: I am not a librarian… yet. But! I have experience in customer service (I’ve worked at Macy’s in the men’s department, on the sales floor at Pier 1, as a waitress at a lunch buffet, and as a clerk at an indie bookstore). It takes time and thought to feel out the boundaries within these sorts of jobs, and I think it will take time for me to learn to allow myself boundaries as a librarian. Part of that may be due to my being trained by the entitled nature of past customers. It’s almost like working in the service industry (whether you’re a librarian or a cashier) could be seen as a sort of precursor to having a public Instagram: you’re out there, in public, presenting yourself a certain way, and certain folks come across your library/checkout/profile and feel free to ask you about yourself, or at least to comment on how you look/dress/act/do your job.
I confess, however: I do think there is an element of hypersensitivity here sometimes. Is it always because of sexism or entitlement that they ask you about your tattoos or whatever? I don’t always think so, and I guess that’s where the struggle lies. I understand (and very much appreciate!) that personal boundaries are a person’s right. But I also see a need to, as Jensen mentions, strike a balance between friendliness and professionalism. After all, different staff people have different boundaries; one might get along with a certain patron in a way that another never will. Because everyone is different (patrons and librarians)! So different expectations abound on both sides. That can be hard to remember when you’re either being asked a personal question by a patron or perceiving a brush-off when you ask your librarian what they did this weekend.
But I also think I (and many, many others, maybe mostly women, who have worked service jobs before) have an issue with figuring out where to draw the line between what’s okay and what isn’t. In a post on Teen Librarian Toolbox, Karen Jensen writes: “Sometimes, patrons reveal too much about their own personal lives, try to monopolize staff time and take them away from other patrons. Other times, they ask invasive questions and make judgmental statements. Working with the public is emotionally hard, fraught with not-often-discussed minefields, and the customer-is-always-right mentality that has permeated our society makes it difficult and terrifying to know when and how to draw and clearly articulate those personal boundaries.” That’s exactly it. Especially as I go through my schooling to become a librarian whose goal is information access, social justice, inclusivity & equality. How is one supposed to deliver those four tremendous services to the public and attempt to maintain some semblance of personal space for themselves at work? I’m hoping it comes with practice… but blog posts like these really help get that practice started.
I come to librarianship from a corporate background. I didn’t feel myself in my work there, and I didn’t like that I wasn’t directly helping anyone with it. I want to work with people directly and help them however I can. Learning that this type of service career can and should be conducted with an expectation of basic rights is both comforting and, maybe weirdly, confounding. I have self-respect, but as a woman and as a customer service worker, I learned (mostly) to put my respect for others over my respect for myself. So I really appreciate that Jensen spells out a few points about good patron service, and how it is not dependent on workers revealing all about themselves if asked, or listening to the sad stories of their patrons for minutes on end. Even if I work at a library where that happens regularly, just knowing that this post is out there saying that there IS a tricky balance to be struck and it’s not up to me to always be a patron’s therapist stand-in is helpful.
I really hope that this conversation persists in library board meetings, within library leadership circles, and among staff as well. I’d love to not go into my library career with the idea that I’m there to serve at whatever cost to myself. So far, I think that is kind of where I’m at, but reading posts like these (and finding other resources that discuss the emotional labor of librarians!) really helps to start grooming my brain for a different type of customer service… the type that’s good for me, and better for my patrons because it’s good for me.
This was an assignment essay for my Services to Children & Youth class at the iSchool at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the fall of 2021.